Television in 1968: Boomers Watched Great Stuff

Despite talk of our current environment ushering in a new Golden Age of Television, you still hear people saying, “all those channels and nothing good is on.” Well, boomers recall when there were only three networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — and they were in fierce competition with each other for the eyeballs of America. By the time TV hit the late sixties, audiences demanded more if they were expected to tune in on any given night, then wait a week for the next episode.

Fifty years ago, in 1968, TV was showing signs of hitting its stride. Its early days behind it, TV needed to become more entertaining and more socially relevant. A look at the top shows of that year illustrate the point. The top-rated shows were a mixed bag encompassing all that had become staples of TV, and on — to modern experiments in comedy, satire and story-telling. There were Westerns and folksy shows, family viewing options, cop and crime shows, musical variety shows that carried on the tradition from the 1940s and ’50s, to be sure — but there were also groundbreaking shows that have gone on to become classics. Take a look at the Top 10 shows of 1968 according to Nielsen Media Research:

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73)
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-69)
Bonanza (1959-73)
Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-71)
Family Affair (1966-71)
Gunsmoke (1955-75)
Julia (1968-71)
The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Here’s Lucy (1968-74)
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71)

While reflecting the divided nature of its audience, the Top 10 was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to a medium that was coming to grips with a changing society and drifting generations. To bridge the gap, look what TV producers added into the group of the next ten top-rated shows:

Mission: Impossible (1966-73)
The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The Mod Squad (1968-73)
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78)
Bewitched (1964-72)
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
My Three Sons (1960- 72)
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70)
Green Acres (1965-71)
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961-69)

Four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, TV portrayed black actors in starring roles, a barrier that had been broken with the introduction of I Spy in 1965 and Star Trek in 1966. Julia, a Top 10-rated drama, starred Diahann Carroll as a working single mother; she was a widow since her husband was killed in Vietnam, raising her son alone while maintaining a career as a nurse.

The Mod Squad attempted to bring hip to the small screen while addressing themes relevant to a new generation in the form of a reluctant police unit that the show described as, “one white (Michael Cole), one black (Clarence Williams III), one blonde (Peggy Lipton).” The show was the first to display an onscreen interracial kiss.

Shows Like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Mayberry R.F.D. were described as “rural TV.” They portrayed a friendly, folksy wholesomeness that many would have preferred rather than the backdrop of the evening news. A case in point is that despite it main character being a marine, in Gomer Pyle, Vietnam is never mentioned. Granted, it was a comedy, but one that takes place in an army camp.

1968 brought us groundbreaking satire and politically-charged comedy from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some contend it was Richard Nixon’s cameo appearance on Laugh-In that helped him win the presidential election of 1968. The Smothers Brothers delved into such controversial territory that they were ultimately cancelled mid-season because they would not submit finished shows to the CBS network for editing and censoring in the allotted time. The irreverent attitude and eye-poking of The Man and Authority by both shows made them popular with boomers.

On the surface, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched seemed like innocuous comedies. Yet both dealt with learning to live with people who were different than the “norm.” I Dream of Jeannie featured an astronaut in his time on Earth after being in space. His daily routine was not unlike any other American heading off to work each day — except that he had a female genie in a bottle to see him out the door. The supernatural superceded a sci-fi space world that was coming true; space travel was brought home to the everyday.

Bewitched can be seen as a mixed marriage where the human husband’s mother-in-law never fully accepts him while he struggles with his role as family provider with a wife who has far more capabilities than the average housewife. Thus she is forced to “help” her husband by doing little magical, witchy things behind the scenes — a very old-fashioned thought in 1968 disguised as a feminist choice.

Mister Boomer’s parents leaned toward the conservative side, but he watched most of the top shows on the family TV. In fact, Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers became favorites in the household. About the only shows that weren’t watched regularly by the family were Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy and Mayberry R.F.D.

Mister B’s mom enjoyed down-home comedies and Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, Gomer Pyle, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres brought that to her. Yet she also really enjoyed Bewitched and Mission: Impossible.

Mister B’s father liked all kinds of TV, but never could resist one that featured a pretty woman, including Diahann Carroll (Julia), Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie) and Peggy Lipton (The Mod Squad). His favorite shows, though, leaned to Dean Martin and Mission: Impossible. He also really enjoyed My Three Sons. Mister B also has nice memories of being able to laugh at the same things as his father when they watched Laugh-In.

What TV shows did your family watch in 1968, boomers?

Hey, Hey, Boomers Loved “The Monkees”

Next week marks the fiftieth anniversary of a boomer-era TV anomaly: the final episode of The Monkees TV series was aired on March 25, 1968. Many boomers have forgotten or perhaps did not know that the group was actually made for the TV show, and not the other way around. The concept for the show was to be about a rock ‘n roll band looking for their big break. An ad was published in trade publications and hundreds of musicians and actors auditioned for the parts.

The four selected to play the band members were Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith — two actors and two musicians. Micky had previously appeared in the TV show, Circus Boy (1956-58), but he also sang and played guitar with several bands in the early ’60s. Davy gained his acting chops by playing The Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1964) on the London stage, and later, on Broadway. Peter was a musician who was recommended for the role by Stephen Stills. Stills was offered the job, but didn’t have any interest in doing a TV series. Instead, he took Peter Tork to the audition, telling the producers that Tork was often mistaken for him. Michael was a musician who rode to his audition on a motorcycle. He wore a wool hat to keep his hair out of his eyes on the ride, and kept it on for his screen test. The casting directors thought it was a nice quirky addition and nicknamed him “Wool Hat.” The first episode of the show refers to Michael with that nickname, and Michael’s hat became part of his persona.

NBC bought the concept in an effort to appeal to young viewers — boomers. The concept was developed and the pilot episode was written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. It aired September 12, 1966. After the initial episode, NBC took control of the writing and Mazursky and Tucker were left out. Mazursky and Tucker went on to write the film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) for which they were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The duo also was responsible for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968) and had many other writing, acting and directing credits.

The Monkees was conceived as absurdist, surreal humor — sort of like The Marx Brothers on acid. It emulated avante garde films of the day with quick cuts, ample improvisation and breaking the fourth wall. Critics quickly compared The Monkees to The Beatles characters in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Many saw Mickey as John, Davy as Paul, Michael as George and Peter as Ringo. The writers agreed they had been influenced by the Richard Lester film.

The boys were coached on comedy improvisation, but since it was increasingly improvised, early episodes placed sections of the four actors’ screen tests or short Q & A formats to fill remaining time. As the show progressed, time was filled with the band singing. It was those song “videos” that Mister Boomer and his sister would wait for.

Davy Jones is quoted as saying, “Ours was the kind of show you could look at or look away from — it had no deep plot. If you missed five minutes while you ate your dinner you didn’t exactly lose the whole thread, you know what I mean? It was all harmless, happy fun. No hidden meanings.”*

Mister Boomer watched the show through its entire run, like other boomers. It reminded him of The Three Stooges, but with less violence. He hadn’t seen many Marx Brothers movies at that juncture. The all-around absurdity reminded him of the Adam West Batman series that aired during the same seasons as The Monkees.

There was a lot to like about the show for boomers; girls thought Davy was cute and hung up posters of him on their bedroom walls, while boomer boys bought models of the Monkeemobile. Then there was the music. Fifty years later, boomers can still sing more of The Monkees theme song than they can of Auld Lang Syne! Mister Boomer’s sister was partial to Daydream Believer and I Want to be Free, while Mister B liked (I’m not Your) Stepping Stone, A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You and Valleri. His mother was a fan of Last Train to Clarksville.

It was only years later that Mister Boomer could fully appreciate the artistry — if one can call it that — of their performances and that of their fellow actors on that show. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mister B saw an episode in color!

Did you watch The Monkees on TV during its original run, boomers?

*Quote appears in Mutant Monkees Meet the Masters of the Multimedia Manipulation Machine! by Davy Jones and Alan Green; Click! Publishing, 1992